Reminiscing and looking for signs of aging in the mirror it seemed like I had been another person who had lived in another world when I had last set foot in the People’s Republic. Memories of lush forests and the South China Sea seemed distant now, this China was not the same. Vast, remote, toxic and pale were the words that flashed across my mind as the plane circled the winter city, like crossing the surface of a crystallized moon, even the ashen buildings seemed to eradicate into the anemic soil.
As a middle aged woman travelling these alien landscapes I thought back to my life when I had last visited this country. I had been a wide eyed boy then, wholesome, pure, extremely polite and innocent. Back then I had just turned 17 and was travelling the world with my first lover, a man twice my age.
A year before I had met him in another winter landscape while sitting on a wall outside my school. He had said something about the blue and silver of my school uniform matching my eyes and then in the following weeks has proceeded to stalk me in his BMW. It was a time when classmates were beginning to feel the first pangs of romantic love. It was a time when I had felt jaded about the little island I had grown up on. I had longed to leave since I could remember. Thoughts of the beyond had lingered in me. These thoughts reached far back, evident within my consciousness around the time of my first glimpses of life when I had first understood that I was alive. Thoughts of the beyond had consummed me ever since. As I had evesdropped on the excited girls in my class debating which boys to kiss I would sit in silence pondering the man in the car. A progressive, Bohemian sort of school I had been aware a friend was dating the sports teacher and another girl was said to be having a lesbian affair with another teacher so I assumed it quite normal to date someone older. I had always been a good child, winning awards and excelling but as the years progressed I became aware that I felt confined. Little did I know the man in the car would change my life course forever. Eventually he conquered me, convinced me to forget my plans of going to university to study theology, to let my dream of becoming a missionary in Africa go, quite a smooth talker he even convinced me to leave my family, my home, my pets.
Everything had gone so quickly after that. The Lover liked me to look like an angelic boy but made me wear women’s evening dresses with no makeup where he’d take me to the most elegant places as a sort of trophy. It’s very strange how accepting the world is of the unconventional as long as you remain natural and polite within it.
Kissing at dawn in the garden of a castle in Czechoslovakia, lazing on our apartment balcony trying to pick up English on the tinny transistor radio while overlooking the Tagus, evedropping the latest gossip on the former Shah of Iran’s former art dealer, back and forth across the Atlantic, airports, hotels, sitting with relics of the Raj, posh accents, refined restaurants with string quartets, jaded millionaires, palaces, casinos in Macau, tea in Harrods. I had adjusted to this new life really quickly. I was accepted into it.
Once at Heathrow a customs official intercepted and interrogated me asking why I had so many stamps in my passport when I had no study or job and why was I travelling alone at that age. He had accused me of not being the nationality on my passport and demanded to know who I was. He was most probably a predator of some sort driven wild by the realisation that people like me could live so openly while he most probably felt confined and oppressed by the life he was leading. Another time in another airport I had been stripped and body searched by a group of males in an interrogation room. It’s so strange what a beautiful boy in a dress can do to alot of men. My new life was not mainstream. One morning I was in a hotel getting ready to go to Covent Garden when looking out the window realised I was in Manhattan, that is how constantly I travelled. My mother would call and cry, telling me to come home. In my birth country I was legally allowed to leave home at sixteen, to date whomever I wanted. “I’m seventeen mum and I know what i’m doing” I would reply. Infact I was a child and I knew nothing at all.
Then one evening I found myself in the rooftop lounge of the Mandarin Oriental gazing out over the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong. While listening to him brag about how I had been a choir boy a year earlier my eyes were drawn towards Kowloon where I knew beyond lay China. I told The Lover that I had wanted to go in that direction and ofcourse he made it happen. China had seemed eerie back then, skinny men puling rickshaws, mobile phones the size of car batteries, live snakes being chopped to pieces in backstreet markets, sad birds in claustrophobic cages and the overwhelming feeling of communism. I thought back to my friends in school, how they would be terrorising our history teacher or back to my friends in church, wondering if they ever did learn to play those instruments, we must have been the wonkiest band on Earth! I would write letters back to them tellng them how it felt in the exotic east, how it felt to be in love. In a way it was me writing back letters to a childhood which I was becoming aware had been snatched from me so unexpectantly. It was my moment to say goodbye to the boy I had been. My friends would write back in admiration. It seemed the quiet, religious boy they remembered had been skyrocketed to a place amongst the stars and in a way I felt that way too.
Everything had changed since then. That boy had ceased to exist long ago. My name, my nationality, my voice, my body through plastic surgery, it had all changed, the world had changed too. Would my school friends even recognize me now? Would they remember me at all? The woman who now looked into the mirror in this progressive, faster China was distorted. Staring into the mirror I thought about mian xiang, the Chinese art of face reading, how it shows that everyone eventually gets the face they deserve. I wondered if my face had matched my soul, if the trials of my life had been etched onto it, if memories of The Lover lay evident within a crease on my face, if future predictions were there to be unlocked.
Me in 2017 with the face the Chinese say I “deserve”
Wakeup calls were always the same in this new China. Riot police would bark through loud speakers around 6am and then the clearances would begin. Not only had my former self ceased to exist but Old China would cease to exist too … by any means possible. Boots against concrete, the sound of crashing walls and then the pleading, the crying in languages I could only assume must have been Chinese. I wondered if we would be next. Even though my hotel was beautiful and the staff didn’t seem to bat an eyelid to the asbest cloud meandering through the alley I still wondered if I would be homeless. I did notice the ramschakle buildings surrounding us seemed a bit haphazard while my hotel was well planned and firm. The hotel gave me a card to show to the riot police who had blocked off our alley so that I could come and go. I had been charmed by the idea of staying in a hutong, a traditional low-rise section of the city. These old areas are snapshots of how Peking used to be. Little did I know this was the part of the city that was being razed to make way for the 21st Century.
The say everything in America is bigger but in China it is huge. Train stations felt like airports and the queues at security check points were on a daunting scale. These checkpoints were everywhere. One frozen morning while shuffling in a queue towards a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Forbidden City I glared at one of those regimented soldiers. She was grabbing a poorly dressed man by the scruff of the neck and that man, all he could seem to do was smile politely. I thought back to those predatory officials who had interrogated me as a boy when I had done nothing wrong and felt a surge of compassion towards the poor man who was being abused. My most powerful death ray seemed to go right through the soldier and she loosened her clutch and lowered her eyes in shame, she knew she was wrong. For a moment, that moment, she almost seemed to be human again.
Mostly central Beijing is on a grid. The wide systematic boulevards seemed to stamp their muddy footprints across the downtrodden soul of the city. Lined by dank Socialist highrise or secretive office blocks, speeding traffic and choking fumes I couldn’t work out where the appeal lay within this futuristic city planning or the sanity of the city planners themselves. Once while sitting beside a memorial to Lenin and Marx I saw a man on a bicycle get run over by a Mercedes. The driver jumped out, stuffed some money into the man’s hand then drove off again. The modern city felt warlike. While walking I managed to cover great swathes of the city and preferred to stick to the lowrise hutongs, using my phone to map through the labyrinth of alleyways. The last traces of a human soul could still be found in those alleyways. I would delight in getting lost feeling like a ghost observing the Chinese life but in no way part of it. I knew no westerner could ever be fully accepted into China and I was at peace with that. The older sections felt recognizable, familiar. It was there in the low city that I loved Beijing most, red lanterns swaying in the moonlight, the sound of opera from the radio, insects being sold as snacks, old ladies in furs walking Pekinese (everyone seemed to have a Pekinese), laughter, the sweet delicious smell of bread, pockets of silence. I imagined little had changed in the genetic makeup of Beijing there. It had a magical aura that the rest of the city didn’t have. It had life.
I had decided to visit the Forbidden City. What is strange about Beijing is that if you want to visit Tian’anmen Square (which is open space) you have to go through security controls. I waited for over an hour in one, shuffling with the Chinese through the nippy frost. Now and then a baby would unceremoniously be placed into my arms for a photo, families lined up around me, they seemed to like my blonde hair and blue eyes. Once while standing a family had even positioned themselves behind me for a family portrait only I had my back to the lens which I thought odd.
Still China was alien. These interactions were minimal as if they didn’t see me at all, they didn’t know me. I was just another Nordic hologram, alien to their eyes that had to be captured on camera holding their offspring. Maybe it was seen to bring luck, maybe I would be framed and put on the wall of a shack in the most obscure parts of the country. China is like Japan. People are polite but still you feel no part of their society. I thought back to Iran, Romania, Peru, India, the places where I had amazing interactions with their citizens. I longed for a deeper human connection. Whenever I would see caucasians in Beijing my heart would leap and i’d long to talk to them. In the security line I noticed a caucasian man smiling at me. He seemed just as baffled as I was as to why they were wanting to photograph me. As the queue shuffled forward it took about ten minutes before we manage to get close enough to talk. He was a businessman from Milan, in China checking out a factory on the outskirts of the capital. He joked and asked why they didn’t ask him for a photo. We were very formal with each other and after entering the Forbidden City politely decided that we would spend the day together. We walked across the Forbidden City, a place I had imagined white, under blankets of ice, snowflakes falling across it’s red roofs. There was no snow, the sky was severe clear, a deep blue contrasting and enhancing the Ming architecture even more so. We talked about our lives while marvelling at the names of the buildings, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, each one more bizarre than the other. Afterwards from a pavilion on the summit of Prospect Hill we overlooked the grounds of the Forbidden City below. While I explained the hill was man-made, built from the land left over from the construction of the moat surrounding the city I was aware that the Italian seemed almost enchanted with me.
Afterwards we made our way south across Tian’anmen towards the Temple of Heaven. Along with the Taj Mahal the Temple of Heaven was one of the first buildings I had ever noticed. My mum had photos of them on our kitchen wall. I had been fascinated with her old photos of exotic islands, crumbling palaces, old mosques. I wondered if the Italian businesman, Ezio, was destined to be with me since that building was so ingrained into my psyche. We had met in a crowd and later that day said goodbye in a crowd, this time in Dongsi Station during rush hour. We promised to meet in Amsterdam and a few months later we did. While viewing a full moon which was framed so perfectly behind the townhouses on a curve of the Herengracht we remarked how Amsterdam was so different, so far more beautiful than Beijing could ever be.
I have mixed feelings about Beijing. I had heard that the Communist Annual Conference was happening on Tian’anmen Square so maybe that was why security had been tightened. Maybe that was why there were many security controls. I had heard because of the conference industry had been put on hold to clear the skies and true, I had never saw the infamous toxic fog. Maybe with Communism the people still saw westerners in some ways as an enemy and that is why interaction were to a minimum.
The Chinese are so far off from my world, to me as pale and remote as the landscapes they inhabit. As the plane took off I left memories of The Lover and China behind. I was heading towards the Middle East unbeknown to me towards the city of my dreams, towards the city of my future, Cairo.